How Michaela Coel Shaped ‘I May Destroy You’


LONDON — Before she sent scripts to the BBC, Michaela Coel sent mood boards.

Her series “I May Destroy You,” which airs on HBO in the United States, had been greenlit by the broadcaster without executives having “a clue” what she was planning, Coel said in a recent Zoom interview. So she collected images from the internet, put them onto PDFs and sent them to Piers Wenger, the BBC’s head of drama programming.

“I was trying to help him imagine what it might be,” she said, laughing, “but it’s only in hindsight I realize that I was just sending pictures.”

While “I May Destroy You” ostensibly follows the London-based writer Arabella (Coel) as she processes a sexual assault, the 12-episode series also confronts the frames through which we see ourselves and each other. The early PDFs she sent to the BBC — which included photos of gay Black couples with similar builds as inspiration for the character Kwame’s story line, links to yoga retreats for women of color and images of industrial chic interiors — held only some of the inspirations Coel drew on for the series.

She also reread “Michaela the Poet,” the blog she had kept in drama school, alert to how her voice had changed over the years, and went to climate change meetings. Over Zoom, the multihyphenate creator broke down her influences for “I May Destroy You.”

Coel starred in this tense 2018 Netflix drama series as Kate, a Londoner whose discovery about her heritage complicates the way she sees herself and her place in the world. It was only when she watched the series that Coel really understood how the show’s creator, Hugo Blick, used Kate’s fight to accept a new part of her identity to interrogate how we define ourselves.

“This was crucial to how I crafted Arabella, how I crafted every single character in ‘I May Destroy You,’” Coel said, “because there is a duality that exists within every character.” Arabella’s assault forces her to consider her identity as a woman, with all the dangers associated with that gender, when previously she had been “busy being Black and poor,” as she said in Episode 7. She’s always been a woman too, but “she never saw it,” Coel explained, “because she was choosing where she put the character of trauma.” After joining an all-female support group for survivors of sexual assault and finding comfort in their shared experiences, Arabella wondered, “Am I too late to serve this tribe called women?”

We see the internal worlds of Arabella’s friends, too: Terry (Weruche Opia) is the attentive best friend harboring a secret, while Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), challenges stereotypes about what it means to be a strong Black man, and what it means to be a gay man..

Coel found more inspiration for her characters’ dualities in two of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s films. The bleak 2014 film “Leviathan” tells the story of Kolya, a mechanic (Alexey Serebryakov) who is fighting to save his home from a corrupt mayor who wants the land. Kolya assaults his wife, and at the end of the film he is wrongly convicted of her murder. In this court scene, he listens as the official reads, in rapid-fire and opaque legal language, his sentence of 15 years in prison. In that moment, facing the members of the court and standing alone with his eyes downcast, Kolya “is processing that the world sees him as worthy of a criminal conviction,” Coel said. She mimicked that scene in Episode 8, when the police officer reads aloud a lengthy update to Arabella’s case in equally alienating legalese.

When she watched “Loveless,” Zvyagintsev’s 2017 film about a divorcing couple, Coel realized the director was telling the same story of internal contradictions as in “Leviathan,” but in a different way. In “Loveless,” the wife, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) tells her estranged mother “You’re God and the Devil rolled into one.” This line really spoke to Coel. “I enjoy constantly being aware of all of those parts within myself,” she explained, “because it makes sure I keep control of the devil in me. There’s one in all of us, so if you’re aware of it, you can manage it and be a socially responsible human being.” In the show’s Halloween episode, Coel draws on this imagery directly.

Episode 5 opens with Arabella waking up in bed with Zain (Karan Gill), the first man she has slept with since having her drink spiked. In the first few moments of the episode, Arabella remembers having sex with Biagio (Marouane Zotti) in Italy, memories that are all soft focus, beautiful light and mutual pleasure. Coel found perfume ads on the internet, including a Calvin Klein Euphoria ad from 2015 that has the tagline “free the fantasy.” Coel wanted Arabella’s reminiscing to feel like the ad, a “perfect romantic scene,” before Zain wakes up and she is brought back to reality.

In Episode 6 of “I May Destroy You,” we flashback to 2004, when Theo (Harriet Webb), Terry and Arabella are all teenagers at high school together, and learn why Terry doesn’t trust Theo.

While Coel drew significantly on her own experiences at a public school, she was also reading “The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons” by Colin Dayan. A law professor at Vanderbilt University, Dayan looks at how the past haunts the law, imprisoning and enslaving specific groups of people and — legally — depriving them of their personhood. Coel found parallels between these ideas and the way Arabella and her classmates group themselves by race. “There’s something about school at that time, in very neglected boroughs in the U.K., that felt like a prison system,” Coel said.

She also spent some time looking at images of the sparse concrete and repeated block shapes of many London schools. “It almost felt like, how could you not have a school that ended up the way they did when you put them in a building so brutal,” she said.

When she pitched “I May Destroy You” to HBO, Coel assured the network that she could provide “the Hollywood ending” to the show. In this context, that meant Arabella finding the man who raped her, and hurting him the way he’d hurt her. In November 2018, when she was writing the final episode, someone suggested she read Margaret Atwood’s short story “Stone Mattress,” in which a middle-aged woman on a cruise kills the man who sexually assaulted her as a teenager. “I remember thinking, I see that this satisfies people, but it doesn’t satisfy me,” Coel said. “How does this woman carry this new label of being a murderer?”

Still, she took people’s desire for revenge finales — a mind-set of “tables turning, it’s our time, see how you like it,” she said — into account as she shaped the 12th and final episode.

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